Before many of my Christian friends think I’ve gone off the deep end and started embracing theological liberalism, I am using “liberal” in the political sense and not the theological sense. I am, will always remain (Lord willing) a confessionally reformed evangelical. But even in the political sense, how can I both be and not be a liberal? Well, that depends on how you define the term “liberal.”
“Liberal” has undergone a redefinition over the past 100 years. Back at the turn of the last century, a liberal was someone who was a strong proponent of individual liberty and a small, limited government. Nowadays we call these people libertarians. While I’m OK with the label “libertarian,” I don’t like the fact that the label “liberal” was co-opted by people who are not liberal by the classic definition of the word. So this article is one man’s (perhaps Quixotic) attempt to regain a word that has fallen out of use.
A very helpful organization called LearnLiberty.org has a video called “What is Classical Liberalism.” In that video, the speaker highlights ten principles that most classical liberals adhere to. I am going to expound a bit on those principles and contrast each principle with where modern liberalism stands on that principle. In the end hopefully you’ll see why we need to take our label back from the pretenders.
Principle #1 — Classical Liberals value liberty as the primary political principle. By making liberty the primary political principle, a classical liberal sees all political debates and policy decisions through the grid of whether or not this position or this policy will increase personal liberty or decrease personal liberty. The problem with much political debate today is that most politicians do not operate from a core set of principles (or if they do, liberty is not among those principles). Most politicians operate pragmatically — what will get me the most votes, what will make me look good and my opponent look bad, what will position me to advance my political career. That is why so many politicians are guilty of flip-flopping on the issues. So-and-so was for position X eight years ago, and now he’s against it. A principled candidate is one who gives a consistently principled answer no matter what the subject is. Contrast this with today’s modern liberals. Today’s liberals may say they’re for liberty and freedom, but in reality modern liberal’s are for anything but liberty. Modern liberals are really, for all intents and purposes, socialists. Socialism does not have liberty as a foundational principle.
Principle #2 — Classical Liberals value the individual over the collective. There is a tendency in today’s political climate toward collectivism. Collectivism sees people as part of a collective — a group based on things such as race, gender or sexual preference — as opposed to autonomous individuals. For example, you have certain people advocating for the “black community” or the “homosexual community” as if everyone who is black or homosexual all think and feel the same. The problem with collectivism is you end up pitting one group against another, rather than trying to promote the maximum liberty of the individual no matter what his or her race, creed or color. Collectivism is an operating principle for modern liberalism, which is just an offshoot of neo-Marxist political philosophy. Classical liberalism sees the individual as autonomous and that the government has the duty to protect the freedom and liberty of all individuals, not support one group over another. Ideally, each individual is viewed as equal before the law. The Bill of Rights protects the liberties of each individual, whether that individual is white, black, Hispanic, male, female, gay or straight, or any combination of the above. Only when the individual is autonomous and has his or her liberty protected is the society as a whole free.
Principle #3 — Classical Liberals have a skepticism about power. This principle probably highlights one of the biggest divides between classical liberals and modern liberals. Classical liberalism has always had a very healthy skepticism about power. Lord Acton, who lived during the heyday of classical liberalism, was noted for saying that “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Rarely have truer words been spoken. History is littered with many examples of young, idealistic people who have entered political office, only to have their ideals crushed and develop a penchant for wanting to stay in power. Consider all the perks of elected office. A salary that is well above the national median salary plus extraordinary benefits that last long one is out of office. Add to that the special treatment one receives at the hand of lobbyists and other special interest groups. Strong is the temptation to compromise on principle. The problem with political power is twofold: 1) Those who have it generally want to keep it, and 2) those who don’t have it want it! Moreover, it is the tendency of political power to grow unless kept in check. As the power of the state grows, the liberty of the individual decreases. If liberty is principle #1, then one must necessarily view political power very skeptically and seek to limit or shrink it whenever possible. This was the original intent of the Founders when the created the Articles of Confederation. The Articles created an incredibly weak central government that accomplished little — which is a good thing! Advocates for a stronger central government called for a replacement of the Articles, hence the Constitution was born; not as strong as those wanting a stronger central government wanted, but stronger than the Articles provided for. Modern liberals favor political power; especially when they have it and can wield it. They view politics as the vehicle through which they can implement their program of social engineering.
Principle #4 — Classical Liberals value the rule of law. The rule of law is essential to a classical liberal society. The rule of law basically means that the laws apply to everyone equally. By everyone, I mean everyone; including those in government. The old saying about America was that we are a nation of laws, not of men. In other words, it was our laws — our Constitution and our Bill of Rights — that made us exceptional, not our political leaders. Today, the laws simply do not apply to the government. The government is able to do things to us that if we were to do them to others, would be guilty of a crime. For example, the government is allowed to take a percentage of our income in the form of taxation. This is state-sponsored theft, plain and simple. The government can write laws that apply to every citizen in the nation except our elected officials. The rules and regulations that govern Social Security and Obamacare do not apply to federal employees. They have their own retirement plan and healthcare plan that normal citizens cannot receive. If modern liberals valued the rule of law, then most of what they want to enact would be illegal.
Principle #5 — Classical Liberals promote civil society and free association over government bureaucracy. This principle and the next sort of go hand-in-hand. Classical liberalism supports and promotes the idea of civil society and voluntary association. Civil society is comprised in the collection of the many, various voluntary associations formed by individuals within that society. It is through this vast network of unregulated associations that a free society functions. The problem modern liberals have with this is with the word “free.” If civil society is formed through unregulated voluntary associations, then there is no need to government bureaucracy and social engineering. That is anathema to the modern liberal who needs the coercive power of the state to further their ends.
Principle #6 — Classical Liberals believe in spontaneous order over central planning. Closely related to the previous principle is the principle of spontaneous order. Spontaneous order is precisely what the name suggests — that social order will spontaneously come into being in a free society in which people engage in the free market and form voluntary associations as they see fit. The classical liberal believes that through spontaneous order, a more efficient allocation of scarce resources will be achieved than through central planning. Historically, this has proven true. There is no possible way that an individual, or a group of individuals, no matter how smart, can economically achieve the optimal allocation of resources to promote economic growth and stability. Each individual knows what’s best for him or herself, and is able to meet those needs better than a central planner who lives hundreds of miles away in the nation’s capitol. Again, modern liberals despise spontaneous order as too chaotic for their central planning ways.
Principle #7 — Classical Liberals value the free markets. A free market economy, one in which people are able to engage in the trade of goods and services and where prices are determined by supply and demand. A free market is “free” because the government does not meddle in the market except to enforce contracts and protect property rights. Modern liberals cannot tolerate a free market because, as with everything else, it gives them no control over the situation. Modern liberals have, and continue to, interfere with the free market. Price controls, minimum wages, enforced labor contracts, and corporatism are all evidences of ways in which the government has interfered with the free markets. A favorite tactic of modern liberals is to interfere with the free markets, blame the bad results on the free market, and use that as an excuse to interfere even more in the free market thereby giving them more and more control over the market than before.
Principle #8 — Classical Liberals value toleration. Toleration, like “liberal,” is a word that needs redefinition. Toleration used to mean that people who have differing viewpoints on a particular topic can “agree to disagree.” In other words, I’m tolerant if I accept your right to have your own opinion, while I reserve the right to disagree with it and even debate it vigorously. Nowadays, thanks to modern liberal redefinition of terms, toleration basically means acceptance. Modern calls to toleration are really calls to acceptance. It is not enough to “agree to disagree.” Now I have to accept differing viewpoints as equally valid as mine. If all viewpoints are equally valid, then none of them are. Classical liberals value classical toleration. This is embodied in the first amendment protection of free speech. I don’t have to like your opinion or agree that it’s equally valid as mine, but I do promote your freedom to have it and to share it. Toleration means living in peace with people with whom I disagree.
Principle #9 — Classical Liberals value and promote peace. Peace is the air that a free society breathes. If there is no peace (i.e., if there is war), then there is no liberty or freedom. War is the health of the state and the state is antithetical to freedom, therefore war is antithetical to freedom. Government often uses the pretext of war to suspend personal liberties. The excuse is would you rather be free or secure? To which I reply, “Can’t we have both?” This is a false dilemma. Yet consider what the most recent War on Terror has unleashed on the American people — the Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Peace promotes prosperity through free trade and the free exchange of ideas. You would think that the modern liberal would also want to promote peace, but consider the fact that Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are all liberal/progressive democrats and have been responsible for the greatest expansions of U.S. military actions in the history of our country. The others such as Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush are either conservative democrats or neoconservative republicans who favor military expansion and American imperialism. Promoting peace doesn’t mean pacifism. It means what Thomas Jefferson meant when he said, “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”
Principle #10 — Classical Liberals strongly favor limited government. Last but not least, classical liberals favor limited government. This stands to reason given principles #1 and #3. This is where classical liberals part company with some radical libertarians who favor an anarcho-capitalist society. This is not the time or place to argue the merits of anarchy over minarchy (minimum government). The point is that if liberty is the primary and foundational principle, then the government needs to be as small as possible. The Constitution was created to limit the size and scope of the federal government, yet the size and scope of the federal government has grown almost from day #1 because those in power tend to ignore Constitutional limitations to their power (see principle #3). Modern liberals, of course, love a growing government because it is through the government that they implement their radical agenda.
So, there you have it. The ten principles of classical liberalism, and ten reasons why I am a classical liberal and happily apply that label to myself.